Caring For & Storing Vintage Linens

Monday, January 25, 2010

I am sharing today at Mary's Little Red House for Mosaic Monday. Thanks for hosting, Mary!

I love old linens and always have. I love ALL old linens…quilts, pillow cases, hankies, dish towels, tableclothes…all of them, but I am especially fond of kitchen linens. I remember when I was a little girl and it was my turn to dry the dishes, I always bypassed the lively colored Vera dish towels in my Mom’s kitchen (in the day before Vera was vintage) and dug to the back of the drawer for the hand embroidered flour sack towels made by my Great-Grandma, Lily Caudill Inman. Even then, those whimsical designs would make me smile and I always had to use the correctly labeled day-of-the-week towel.

Using old linens, whether embroidered, embellished with crochet or simple and tailored, creates an atmosphere of nostalgia and warmth in your home. If you are like me and hold on to linens as family keepsakes and rescue them as you happen upon them in antique stores, flea markets and garage sales, you end up with many more lovely examples than you can display at one time. Old linens do require careful cleaning and storage.

Where do you start when you acquire an old tablecloth or set of embroidered dish towels, believe it or not, you start with your vacuum. Vacuuming textiles can be a very beneficial and safe way to remove dust and dirt that can damage and cut fibers, according to the Nebraska Cooperative Extension Office. Use low suction, with vents open. For items too fragile to take direct suction, placing a clean piece of tulle over the cloth will help to protect it during vacuuming. If linens are soiled, it's important to clean them before storing them away for future use. Proper cleaning will keep insects from being attracted to food and grease as well as improving the appearance of the item in most cases. Keep in mind that cleaning should only be done if it will not affect the color, shape and strength of the fabric. Using water on cotton and linen removes acid build-ups and actually makes them more flexible. The extension office also recommends checking fabrics for colorfastness by using a few drops of water in an out-of-the-way place. After the liquid soaks in, blot with white cloth or tissue to see if any color is present. Try it with detergent solutions too before immersing linens and don't forget to check each different color in a multi-colored item. Some conservators recommend using distilled water to reduce the likelihood of depositing lime and iron in your vintage fabrics which can cause deterioration and discoloration over time. When we lived with a well full of iron, I was in total agreement with this recommendation. Now, our water isn’t so hard and the minerals are not such a concern. When you’ve determined the fabric is colorfast, use a mild soap like Fels-Naptha to clean your linens. Never use an automatic washing machine and dryer. If you have discolorations and/or stains, try a lemon juice and salt mixture for removing stains. Another thing you can try is drying the items in the sun to help to bleach out any yellowing. Be careful with this technique. Many conservators believe this is too harsh for fragile fabrics. I tend to chose a day when the sun is dappled by a few clouds and keep out only until dry. Do not drape over the clothes line. Dry cleaning is not recommended for fragile textiles because of friction and abrasion agitation causes as well as the damaging effect of excessive heat and the harsh chemicals involved. If you do chose to dry clean, request fresh or filtered solvent and ask them not to steam or press the linens. Dry your linens flat to avoid mishaping. Linens should be pressed carefully and quickly with a hot iron and starched sparingly.

When storing most linens, avoid folding them. If you are short on storage space, roll your linens as an alternative to folding. Folding stresses fabrics. If you must fold, use acid-free tissues or muslin to ease the stress points. Refolding often to distribute wear will also help to minimize damage. Storing linens flat is ideal. Wrapping or layering in acid-free tissue or muslin will also protect your linens. This is especially important if you store your linens in cardboard, paper, metal or wooden boxes which can deteriorate textiles with direct contact. Unsealed wood (read cedar chests) can stain and damage textiles requiring expensive treatments by professional conservators to reverse. Plastic totes should also be avoided since they do not allow air circulation and could trap moisture inside resulting in mildew....the enemey of textiles. Another issue with plastic totes is that they create static electricity which can draw in damaging dust.

Seems like a lot of fussy steps but with tender care, your keepsake linens can live happily in your home for years and years to come. Now that you know how to care for and store your linens, use them and enjoy them! They will bring a smile to your face!


  1. What great information. Thanks! I have so many of my gr-ma's linens - as I am the 52nd or 52 gr-children, I don't know how I ended up w/so much of her things, but I'm so grateful that I did. (My mom is the baby of it's a BIG family.) And many of these things are in quite good shape for their age...she would be 133 yrs old this March.

    You've just given me a great idea to blog about. I'm going to have to gather a few things, take some pics & post about them. Thanks. '-)

    Blessings from Ohio...Kim W<><

  1. Thanks for sharing these great cleaning and storing tips! I have quilts made by my great-grandmother and dishtowels embroidered by my grandmother and a couple of sweaters knit for my kids by my mother. :-) Gotta take good care of all those.

  1. Love this information. I've got a box full of my late mother in laws linens that I just wasn't sure what to do with. You've given me some inspiration!

  1. Thanks for sharing all this information. I don't have anything that has been handed down but do enjoy picking up old linens at the flea markets.

  1. Lori E said...:

    I don't have any vintage linens but this is good to know in case I fall in love with a piece at some point.

  1. Such wonderful things in your picture. I have a few aprons that were my great-grandmother's. I hate to tell you how I throw them in the washer, fold them in the drawer...I'm surprised they are still here after reading this!


  1. Laurie said...:

    Your mosaic brings back memories, and I have a few of my grandmother and mother's linens, nothing fancy, but cherished. Thank you for your information on how to care for them!

  1. Anita said...:

    I wish I had some beautiful vintage linens as family keepsakes to care for and cherish... unfortunately I don't! If I did I know I wouldn't have a clue on how to take care of them. I'm going to save your tips just in case I happen upon something special in the future. Thanks for sharing and have a great week!

  1. Deb said...:

    great photo...great tips..I always loved the embrodried hand towels the best....

  1. Linda Stubbs said...:

    Just love the top photo. How beautiful is that? Thank you for sharing all the info. I have some linens that need some work on them. I will try out your info on them.

    Blessings, Linda

  1. What a great post...I've learned a lot.

  1. Carol said...:

    What a lovely collection! Thanks for the good info. Have a wonderful week!

  1. Porch Days said...:

    Those linens are so pretty. They make a nice photo mosaic.

  1. Jennifer said...:

    I was excited to find this post...I'm sharing it with my mom and aunt as they both love vintage linens!

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